How 'The Walking Dead' Brought the Whisperers to Life

Director and horror effects mastermind Greg Nicotero tells The Hollywood Reporter all about the zombie drama's deadliest villains yet — with behind-the-scenes photos of what he described as "classic horror movie killers."
Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

[This story contains spoilers for season nine, episode nine of AMC's The Walking Dead, "Adaptation."]

The residents of the Alexandria Safe-Zone have just encountered their deadliest foes yet — but for fans of Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's Walking Dead comic books on which the AMC drama is based, these creatures have been the stuff of nightmares since their initial arrival five years ago.

Debuting in 2014's The Walking Dead #130, the Whisperers are a group of survivors who thrive in the zombie apocalypse by blending in with the dead. They use human flesh suits to disguise themselves as walkers, adopting their patterns of movement and behavior, viewing the dead as the next evolution of life.

As with showrunner Angela Kang's adaptation of the comic book Whisperers, the original story begins by tricking the reader into believing zombies are now capable of speech. (In the comics, it's a jarring reveal that would make any survivor instantly consider the possibility that they killed walkers who could have actually returned to life.) The misunderstanding becomes clarified in deadly fashion with the final page of The Walking Dead #132, which features a now infamous image of Alpha, the Whisperer queen played on television by Samantha Morton.

It's an indelible image for longtime Walking Dead fans, one that set immeasurably high expectations for executive producer and legendary makeup effects artist Greg Nicotero's eventual depiction of the Whisperers. Among the people who were waiting with great anticipation for Nicotero's team to take on the challenge of bringing the Whisperers to life: none other than Nicotero himself, who not only led the effort in creating the Whisperers for television, but also directed the midseason premiere in which they finally stepped forth into the spotlight. 

Below, the man behind the new Walking Dead nightmare speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about what it took to bring the Whisperers off the page and onto the screen, and how their arrival changes the game for the rest of season nine and onward. Additionally, Nicotero has shared behind-the-scenes photos of the Whisperer creation process. (This interview was conducted before THR exclusively broke news of star Danai Gurira's season 10 departure.)

Greg, fans have been waited a long time, eager to see how you and your team would handle the Whisperers.

I feel the exact same way! (Laughs.) We have had our fair share of villains on the show, but I remember reading the comic book and seeing that first image of Alpha with the shotgun. She had this weird, partially melted sagging skin and these human eyes. It was really chilling. We've spent eight and a half years refining zombie makeup and pushing it all to the limit. The idea that we now have a new villain, and that we can use the concept of them skinning walkers and wearing walker skins, stitching these masks together? It was really exciting for us.

We used the book as inspiration, of course, but as we were getting in there with the sculptures and refining the immense amount of decomposition and rot that makes it feel like a zombie, but also makes it feel like it's something just a little bit different. That was all about the exact same things I've dealt with in films like Halloween, the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, Texas Chainsaw Massacre … when you have these faceless villains, these faceless killers, so much of it comes down to how much of the eyes do we see, how much of the mouth do we see, how much humanity do we want to reveal under this immobile mask that doesn't react when it's killing you? It never reacts when it's stalking you; it just has this sort of oddly one-directional desire, where you can't read any emotion behind it. It's the classic horror movie killer.

Which gives you the opportunity to lean into some classic horror movie scene structure, too.

Yes. For the opening scene in this episode, when I cut it together, we used temp music from A Quiet Place. It was so terrifying. I was so excited that the show was actually scary. With Samantha and the Whisperers, we're really able to play off of that unsettling nature of why did that zombie stop walking? And then we have the end sequence with Alden (Callan McAuliffe) and Luke (Dan Fogler) looking in one direction, and you see [the Whisperers] standing there. You don't know if they're walkers. You don't know if they're Whisperers. And then Alpha walks up, which allows us to play a completely new emotion: an unsettling creepiness that we have never played on The Walking Dead, ever. 

After nine years, it's really exciting for us to be able to bring something new to the table that's thrilling and different. When Samantha came in, her performance was so chilling. I would get home from shooting and couldn't wait for people to see what we're doing. We were talking about the show as if this was season one all over again, and we've been able to add an entirely new feel to the show through Alpha's presence and her single-minded understanding of how the world is different now. In her mind, in order to exist in the world of the dead, you have to move among them. You have to be a part of them. It's such a fascinating aspect that we now have to play with.

When did you start designing the Whisperers?

We started designing the mask back in April. It was a very specific aesthetic. We were doing sculpture after sculpture. With some of them, we mirrored drawings directly from the comic book, where they had a little bit of a melted wax look, in terms of how they were trying to get the skin to look like it was saggy. We really wanted to play around with some different visual looks, so some of them have that feel, where if you look at the shapes of the eyes, you'll see them drooping down, so we're creating an illusion of sagging skin, that there's some weight when you get to the corners of the eyes and the shape of the mouth.

We did a couple of prototype sculptures. We painted them, we put the stitching in, we punched the hair in. I had them shipped down to Atlanta and did a presentation with Angela and [chief content officer Scott M. Gimple], where we presented the first mask. We wanted to make sure the color didn't feel like it was the same color as the zombie skin, because we needed to make it feel like a different animal. So we darkened around the eyes, which is the scariest aspect of the mask: those human eyes in the dark sockets of the eye holes.

You have played zombies across the series. Have you inhabited the skin of the Whisperer yourself, yet? Can you speak at all to how it impacts performance, as opposed to what it's like to slip into a zombie's skin?

It's a great question, because when they're moving among the walkers, they have to move like the walkers. But at some point, when they break character to become more "human," so to speak, how quickly should they move? It was one of the big questions we had, too. If you really think about it, if these Whisperers are among a walker herd and start moving like human beings, the walkers will recognize that. There were instances where they moved quickly, and some where they didn't move so quickly and had to stay in character, because otherwise, the walkers would be alerted to their presence. We talked a lot about that. 

Take the scene on the bridge [in Sunday's midseason premiere], where Daryl (Norman Reedus) finds Lydia (Cassady McClincy). He's very smart about how he narrows down who is human and who isn't. When he shoots the first crossbow bolt and the walker keeps walking, he was like, "OK, onto the next one." He's not shooting them in the head. He's trying to create a mouse trap. When he shoots the Whisperer in the leg and the Whisperer cries out, he's now blown his cover. Daryl and Michonne use that fact that the walkers are now alerted to this man's presence to capture Lydia. It's a very interesting sequence in that it shows how smart both Michonne and Daryl are in how they adapt to this newfound threat, where Daryl fires the first bolt, the walkers keep coming, and now he knows there's six more to go. I loved that. Just that one piece is critical to show they're being very smart about adapting to fight this new threat.

It's one of the many ways the Whisperers' arrival impacts the show. Not only are the stakes of the story changing, but the way you can stage action sequences changes, too.

That's something I talked to the actors about over and over again: "You have to understand that everything you've learned about survival is now out the window. There could be somebody in the trees that has a crossbow aimed at you. They don't use guns, because guns would attract the attention of other walkers. But there's this new threat out there. You can't just walk down the road and feel confident you're safe." It really was about retraining the actors to start understanding how they needed to perceive this new threat. In our world, they were always keeping their eyes open for walkers, and as soon as they would see one, they would just go the other way. But now, that tactic is out the window. It might not be a walker. It might be a human being. They might be getting corralled by this new group of people.

The episode ends with a version of that first Alpha image from the comics, which as you mentioned, was a huge source of inspiration for you. It must have felt like a journey coming full circle.

Without a doubt. For me, there are certain panels from The Walking Dead that have been indelibly burned into my brain. Lori being killed outside of the prison, that frame of her being shot. When Carl shoots Shane. When Glenn died. All of those panels were so iconic to me in terms of the story of the comic book. That moment where Alpha reveals herself as a human being is when the rules changed in the most dramatic way possible. So, I did everything I could to make sure the camera was low, that the camera is dollying up to her as she raises the shotgun and points it at the camera. I wanted to recreate the visceral emotion of how I felt when I saw that comic book panel. 

Ever since Samantha started working on the show, I've been talking about how we have our best villain yet. Jeffrey Dean Morgan called me up one day to say, "Hey, motherfucker, what are you talking about?" (Laughs.) I said to him, "You know I love you and I think you're a great villain, but this is just so different." It's different! If we kept having the same villains show up over and over, it would feel silly and redundant. But Samantha arrived so committed to the role and the performance. When she comes in and sits in the makeup trailer, and we're putting makeup around her eyes and around her mouth, and the mask goes on, and she's just sitting there, staring into the mirror for a minute. We would talk about the hair, and her attitude, and how she acts and how she's presenting herself. She was all about it in this amazing way. Her commandment of the character really makes the show better in such a great way. That kind of thing is really infectious. Everyone sees there's a woman who hasn't been here on the show before, is showing up and delivering this amazing performance, and everyone is struck by it. It really allowed us to jump in. Even Andy Lincoln [said to me], "Oh, great. You bring this villain in after I'm gone?"

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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